This annus horribilis is not over yet, and it has now taken away from us the greatest doyen and scholar of Urdu literature the world knew over the recent decades, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. He died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family and his favourite dogs, having recovered earlier this month from Covid-19.

I had the honour and pleasure to visit him in his study in January this year, which isn’t anything less than a library. It is hard to imagine all those books siting there without their avid reader. Ghalib’s often quoted verse “aisā kahan se laun ki tujh saa kahen jise” – “where do I find another who may be like you?” – doesn’t seem to hold truer than in this moment of the greatest loss for Urdu culture.

Poet, novelist, critic, literary historiographer, translator, editor, publisher, professor, literary modernist as well as postcolonial revivalist of traditions – it is a long list of literary and cultural roles that he performed exquisitely alongside his job with the Indian postal services till his retirement in 1994 and thereafter. It is tough to prioritise one aspect of Faruqi’s literary impact over the others, but what he brought to all the different sides of his prolific career was the capacity to be a revisionist, a field-changing observer, who managed to change the purviews of aesthetics, criticism, and literary history through his rigorous scholarship.

The cover of an issue of 'Shabkhoon'.

Take for example the magazine, Shabkhoon, that he singlehandedly ran for 40 years (1966-2006). “Blood of the night” referred to the surprise attack in the night with the aim of spilling the blood of the literary antecedents of the Progressives by publishing new Modernist literature. It was also produced by Faruqi burning the midnight oil to work on the magazine after his day job.

Premchand had provided the manifesto of the Progressives, “humein husn ka mayaar badalna hoga”, – “we will have to change the standard of beauty”. To Faruqi, however, the Progressive onslaught was a political disservice to the beauty of literature, and through the modernism of Shabkhoon he set out to set his own aesthetic standard in Urdu literature.

He was never one to mince words, in person or in his writing. His literary criticism reflected this strongly. A famous contrarian position he took was to denounce the poetic worth of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was the favourite poet of his generation for most. Faruqi said it was only his kaifiyat, or the capacity to feel, the strength of his emotions, that made Faiz appealing, if at all.

The politics, Faruqi said, was read into Faiz’s work from the outside, but he only worked with the traditional radicalism that one may find in the work of any classical ghazal poet. Faiz’s awkward Persianisms also did not appeal to Faruqi. His commentary on Ghalib, Tafheem-e-Ghalib, and his four-volume criticism of Mir Taqi Mir’s verse, Sher-e Shor-Angez, that won the Saraswati Samman are only some of his pathbreaking works of literary criticism.

One of the fields to which Faruqi made an exceptional contribution was that of the linguistic history of Urdu, in works such as Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, published at the time he was a visiting professor at University of Pennsylvania. Since British times the language had often been understood to have arisen from the military camp, from the Turkish word, “Urdu”.

But Faruqi decisively showed it could only have been a highly cultivated language that realised its present form in Mughal Delhi, where it was called zuban-e-urdu-e-mu’alla-e-Shajehanabad, or the “language of the exalted camp of Shahjehanabad (Delhi)”. This led to the diminutive Urdu. Till the middle of the nineteenth century, its most noted practitioners, such as Mirza Ghalib, refused to use the word Urdu for their language, calling it Rekhta, Hindvi, or Hindi, while Mir Taqi Mir, the 18th-century major poet did not know the word, Urdu, as the name of any language.

Faruqi’s training as a masters student of English literature at Allahabad University had familiarised him with both Western ways of criticism as well as the snobbery of the Englishwallahs. This enabled him to produce criticism that was more objectively evaluative than the traditionally eulogised as conventional Urdu criticism had tended to be.

Furthermore, the encounter with Anglicised snobbery, which was a direct result of colonialism, also allowed him to think beyond Western considerations of literary merit and aesthetic worth. Poetic forms such as the ghazal or the practice of oral storytelling, dastangoi, had been frowned upon since the losses of 1857 to the British, creating a sense of inferiority in Indians with respect to their own cultural forms of expression.

Faruqi revived dastangoi with great success in collaboration with his nephew Mahmood Farooqui, leading to a rebirth of a native art form, which is a most remarkable and extraordinary achievement. Faruqi concentrated on the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, collecting and researching all of its numerous volumes, that Mahmood Farooqui drew from and performed with his former stage partner Danish Husain.

A Prayer

Before Death the Jester
hidden behind his veil of flowers and flower-beds
clad in his ancient gown all patched of a hundred colours
Daubs  my doors and walls, my house and garden, with soot
and trembling panting bodies change to a no-shape shape
or become un-real shadows like actors in a play
Before the Ocean, moving its magic lips
Spell-binds the moon-lit night and shatters
it to fragments
Before a tiny particle death-ly
and dazzling brighter more than a thousand suns and moons
bursts out from the upper storey of the sky and falls
on Earth’s head, before it rips
Open the heart of the rosy-cheeked half awake half asleep little doll,
Before any of this happens, give me leave
to die.

— By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Translated from the Urdu by the poet.

All this, of course, is apart from Faruqi Sahib’s own original creative contributions. His historical novels such as Kai Chand Thay Sar-e-Asmaan which he translated himself as The Mirror of Beauty, and the English novel, The Sun that Rose from the Earth, tell the tales of Mughal life in rich historical detail, bringing in numerous poets of the time, Mir, Ghalib, Dagh, as characters.

His many collections of Urdu poetry have also been critically appreciated and are highly valued. His translations of not only his own work but that of both canonical and lesser known writers are also a tremendous contribution to the world of letters. The translations of Mir’s poetry for the Murty Classical Library of India is only one notable title among a long list.

Faruqi has left an indelible mark on the literary landscape of the Indian subcontinent and the world. His numerous works in Urdu and English will continue to resonate for readers and scholars alike. His daughters Mehr Afshan Faruqi and Baran Faruqi, both academics, also carry the torch forward, and we await Mehr Afshan’s authoritative literary biography of Mirza Ghalib forthcoming from Penguin with bated breath. The world of letters will miss Shamsur Rahman Faruqi greatly.

Maaz Bin Bilal teaches literature at Jindal Global University. His translation of Mirza’s Ghalib’s long poem on Banaras, Chirag-i-Dair, is forthcoming from Penguin next year.